Trump abruptly ends meeting with Democrats after Pelosi says he is 'engaged in a coverup'
WASHINGTON - The feud between President Donald Trump and congressional Democrats reached new heights of animosity Wednesday after Trump angrily walked out of a White House meeting on the nation's infrastructure, insisting he would not work with Democrats unless they abandon their inquiries into his businesses, presidency and personal finances.
"Get these phony investigations over with," Trump told reporters in the Rose Garden, moments after he spent three minutes in the Cabinet Room raging against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and other Democrats.
Afterward, Pelosi called the spectacle a "temper tantrum" intended to obscure Trump's "lack of confidence . . . that he really couldn't match the greatness of the challenge that we have" to pursue a sweeping infrastructure deal.
Trump in turn accused Pelosi of a "takedown attempt," and railed about her allegation Wednesday morning that he is ducking congressional subpoenas to act as a "coverup" for his own misbehavior.
Left in grave doubt were hopes for bipartisan agreement in looming battles over budget and trade, as well as the $2 trillion infrastructure package that had been set for discussion.
In truth, the infrastructure talks were already on thin ice, with congressional Republicans and Trump's own chief of staff balking at any hefty increase in government spending to improve bridges, roads, mass transit and bring broadband to rural America. On Tuesday, hours before the meeting, Trump sent a letter insisting Congress would have to pass his North American trade deal before he would agree to pursue infrastructure.
Some of the theatrics on display Wednesday were spontaneous, while others were premeditated, according to White House aides - inspired by Trump's reaction to coverage of a Wednesday morning closed-door meeting of House Democrats. Inside the Capitol, lawmakers chewed over their pending investigations into Trump, as well as the possible launch of the impeachment process.
"The I-word - can you imagine?" Trump later said.
Leaving the meeting at 10 a.m., Pelosi told reporters Trump was "engaged in a coverup" by blocking House subpoenas - a comment that infuriated the president, who was watching on television. About an hour later, reporters were summoned to the Rose Garden, where aides hastily prepared for a news conference just as the infrastructure meeting was set to kick off at 11:15 a.m.
Entering the Cabinet room, Trump never shook hands with the lawmakers and never sat down, instead standing at the head of the table to lecture before leaving the room. Pelosi and others returned to Capitol Hill, where they delivered a lecture of their own - declaring that the walkout proved that Trump was not serious about compromising with Democrats on major legislation.
"He just took a pass, and it just makes me wonder why he did," said Pelosi, who maintains that Democrats remain committed to improving infrastructure. "In any event, I pray for the president of the United States, and I pray for the United States of America."
Some Democrats, including Schumer, openly postulated that the entire White House episode Wednesday had been planned to obscure the fact that Trump was not willing to finance an ambitious infrastructure bill. They pointed to telling details, such as the fact that the Cabinet Room drapes had not been drawn or that a sign reading, "NO Collusion, NO Obstruction," was posted on the presidential lectern in the Rose Garden.
"I think they can't figure out a way to do infrastructure, and they came up with a very inelegant way to get out of it," Schumer said.
A senior administration official said dissent remained in the administration on how to pay for infrastructure - and whether Trump should have agreed to $2 trillion in spending weeks ago. In one way, the official said, some aides were happy with the blowup because it avoided any further policy promises they saw as detrimental.
But another official denied that the walkout had been planned before Pelosi made her "coverup" comments - the sign, the individual said, had been printed weeks before, around the time special counsel Robert Mueller III completed his report. And this official said the Rose Garden statement was not planned before Wednesday morning and was only orchestrated after press secretary Sarah Sanders said shortly before the legislative meeting began that an impromptu Rose Garden event was needed.
Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private talks.
Other congressional leaders watched the spectacle unfold and braced for a potential 18 months of stalemate.
On Tuesday, bipartisan budget talks held in the offices of Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made surprising progress. Less than 24 hours later, the White House blowup threw those talks in doubt, with a potential government shutdown and federal default on tap for the fall.
"It seems like we've got a little bit of an issue right now," said Senate Majority Whip John Thune, R-S.D. "It's hard to see how anything gets done around here unless the atmospherics change."
House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky., also said he feared the worst for the fiscal talks: "It's not a good sign that the president is acting like a toddler."
Democrats show no signs of abandoning their multifaceted probes of Trump in the face of his legislative threats. They got fresh boosts Wednesday outside of Washington, with a federal judge in New York backing a Financial Services Committee subpoena of Deutsche Bank, Trump's longtime lender, and the New York State Assembly passing a law that could allow Democrats to request Trump's state tax returns.
Ironically, inside the morning meeting of House Democrats that so angered Trump, a presentation from Pelosi and a host of committee chairmen seemed to defuse a tide of impeachment sentiment that had risen over the past week due to new instances of Trump administration stonewalling.
Pelosi and most of the chairmen focused on recent successes in court battles aimed at forcing the administration to comply with subpoenas, and they counseled for a measured course, according to multiple people in the room.
The meeting "reflected where most of this caucus is at," said freshman Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn. "Have faith in the courts and have faith in process, and impeachment only if absolutely necessary."
Even some of the most ardent advocates of opening an impeachment inquiry tempered their enthusiasm in the face of Pelosi's persuasive onslaught Wednesday. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., who spoke up forcefully for such an inquiry in a private leadership meeting Monday, would not say definitively Wednesday that one should now be launched.
"I just think we need to have a conversation about all the constitutional means that are available to us, and we're having that conversation," Raskin said.
Speaking Wednesday afternoon at a Washington event hosted by the Center for American Progress, Pelosi questioned the practical value of opening an impeachment inquiry at this point: "I'm not sure we get more information if we do an impeachment inquiry. But if so, that's a judgment we have to make."
"It's not just the substance that we're after," she added. "The coverup is frequently worse than the crime."
While Democrats vowed to plow forward with their investigations, they were also questioning whether it was worth continuing to even try to negotiate with a president who has yet to reach a major compromise with them. Trump's most ambitious legislative accomplishment, his 2017 tax cut, was passed exclusively with Republican votes. A bipartisan deal on criminal justice reform that passed last year enjoyed broad Democratic support - Trump's challenge was convincing fellow Republicans.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., declared the infrastructure push "dead" Wednesday. "Without him, that's not happening," he said, pointing to the political hurdles in the GOP-controlled Senate.
McConnell, upon entering a GOP meeting at the Capitol, was asked by a reporter whether the White House drama blew up other agenda items besides infrastructure. He paused for a couple seconds, smiled and walked away without commenting.
Thune said he was hopeful the clash would be fleeting and recalled previous blowups between Trump and Democrats - including a similar walkout Trump staged during the record-long government shutdown that ended earlier this year.
"Everyone had kind of their moments where they went and did their genuflecting to their audiences and eventually came back to the table, and eventually the deal got done," he said. "There's stuff that we just have to do, no matter how bad it is around here."
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The Washington Post's Ashley Parker, Felicia Sonmez, Erica Werner and Paul Kane contributed to this report.
This article was written by Mike DeBonis, Rachael Bade, Josh Dawsey and John Wagner, reporters for The Washington Post.